On Thursday, in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, two young women sat in an alley where 13-year-old Adam Toledo took his last breath.
They quietly comforted each other following the release that afternoon of the video showing Adam being shot and killed by Chicago police officer Eric Stillman following a foot chase at 2:30 a.m. on March 29.
A few feet away, in the middle of a shrine for the seventh grader, there’s a white candle with a message written with a sharpie: “I’m so sorry for you and your family. I’m so sorry you had to be a martyr. I promise to fight hard for you.”
The video has sparked outrage in Little Village and across the nation. After witnessing the video, some Little Village residents were openly emotional. And while small crowds mobilized for protests downtown and at Chicago Police headquarters, some in Little Village were left paralyzed by the video, unable to act immediately as they tried to process what they had witnessed.
However, some in this Mexican-American and Mexican-immigrant community remained silent, hesitant to criticize police in a land that has provided them with work and other opportunities that were difficult to come by in their native Mexico. And some have openly questioned why a 13-year-old boy would be out in the middle of the night running from police.
Adam’s mother, Elizabeth Toledo, said her son had been missing for two days before she was notified that he had been killed.
Attorney Adeena J. Weiss-Ortiz, who represents the family, told reporters last week that Elizabeth Toledo was upset over messages she’d been receiving.
“She’s been getting messages from the community that the community is judging her,” Weiss-Ortiz said. “She wants you to know she was a full-time mom and a homemaker to five children. That on Sunday night she put her son to bed with his little brother.”
Angel Rivera, who runs an after-school program in Little Village, said it’s unfair to blame Adam’s family for his death.
“There’s such a small margin of error for our youth that they really have to be a straight-A student,” said Rivera, adding he’s had negative encounters with police. “There’s this unrealistic goal when you consider how under-resourced and unsupported they are.”
“I kept seeing his face in all the youth that I’ve worked with in over 20 years,” Rivera said. “I kept seeing my son’s face, who is now 13, and how easily it could have been one of those kids.”
Kim Wasserman-Nieto, executive director for the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, said many Mexican immigrants buy into the idea that if they work hard enough and study hard enough, their kids will be shielded from racism.
“There’s this idea that leads us to believe that, if you come to America and you pull yourself up by your bootstraps, you can make it. But we know that you can’t do this on your own,” said Wasserman-Nieto, warning others not to blame Adam’s family.
“This wasn’t a question of his mother not loving him. His mother loved ‘til death. She filed a police report because he was missing. They genuinely loved that child,” Wasserman-Nieto said.
Little Village is home to Cook County Jail, located in the complex at 26th Street and California Avenue, one of the biggest county jails in the country. For decades, this community has experienced unrelenting gang violence. Last year, the pandemic ravaged this community with one of the highest rates of COVID-19 in the city. And last April, residents in this Southwest Side community weren’t notified properly before a Hilco smokestack imploded and blanketed the neighborhood under a plume of dust and debris.
And while many teens in this community have fought for better living conditions, education and environmental justice, they are constantly under a microscope, Wasserman-Nieto said.
“At every turn, somebody is judging you. At every turn there’s somebody telling you that you’re doing it wrong. You’re too brown. Or your name is too ethnic. Or you look at somebody the wrong way and five-0 is coming at you. Or you have to help your family with translations. You have to help your family and you miss school, and you’re considered a dropout,” the Little Village native said with her voice rising.Wasserman-Nieto says the older Mexican immigrants come from a country with rampant police corruption. And some residents say they don’t feel they can criticize their adoptive country’s government.
“We don’t have the right to opine in this country,” said Maria Quirarte, in Spanish. “We’re in a country full of opportunities. And if we don’t take advantage of those opportunities, it’s on us.”
Quirarte, acknowledging Elizabeth Toledo’s painful loss, said she didn’t know what to think or what to do. For now, she’s focusing on protecting her children.
“My children are not allowed out of the house without me,” said Quirarte, who’s been living in Little Village for 20 years. “I try to take advantage of any opportunity. That’s why I came to this country.”
Berto Aguayo said the police killing of Adam Toledo could help unify the Latino community to fight for accountability. Aguayo grew up in the Back of the Yards neighborhood with his mother, who worked constantly to support his family. Aguayo said he joined a gang when he was Adam’s age.
Aguayo said he was heart-broken when he saw the video.
“It just hit me. We are Adam. You truly are Adam. I saw myself in him in that video,” said Aguayo, executive director of Increase the Peace, a violence prevention and youth development organization. “I saw my cousin in that video. I saw our youth that we work with.”
Aguayo says he was able to escape gangs only because he got the support he needed. He said his mother begged Don Chuy, the owner of a nearby store, to give him a job. And after a suspension at school, Aguayo said the principal told him that she would write him a recommendation letter for a job at an alderman’s office in Lincoln Park.
“I applied to that summer job, and it was an opportunity that transformed my life,” Aguayo said. “Just to be able to get out of the neighborhood and see that Lincoln Park has nice things. It gave me a different perspective. We’re being cheated.”
He said more resources are needed for young people on the South and West sides of Chicago. But until that happens he urges the community to come together and help teens instead of labeling gang members and giving up on them.
“I’m only [here] because people in the community gave me the resources and opportunities that the system and our community just didn’t have,” he said.